Justin Kurzel has reunited with the stars of his last project, 2015’s Macbeth, to create a project that is just as serious, just as weighty, despite at its core being about the quest for a magical apple through advanced virtual reality. Though it’s bolstered by some glorious action sequences and a stellar cast that really gives us their all, the lack of any levity whatsoever in Assassin's Creed amounts to a soulless experience that wastes its potential.
It starts promisingly, with some succinct historical backstory outlining the nefarious Templars’ ongoing efforts to retrieve The Apple of Eden and the Assassins’ ongoing efforts to stop them. Modern rock shreds as we cut to young Callum Lynch in the ‘80s, our unwitting protagonist whose world spins into chaos after his assassin ancestry catches up with him. It’s quick, confident exposition that efficiently condenses the notoriously convoluted lore of Ubisoft’s series.
So far so good as we’re fast-tracked to the present day, and we meet an older Callum (Michael Fassbender), now trapped in the cool blue concrete walls of the mysterious Abstergo Foundation by Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cottilard) and her father Allan (Jeremy Irons). Using cutting-edge VR tech called ‘the Animus’ - a staple for those familiar with the video game series - the pair want to access the 500-year-old memories of Callum’s ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, who could lead them to the location of the fabled Apple through his adventures during the Spanish Inquisition. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense sold very seriously by Fassbender and Cottilard, both fiercely committed to their roles.
Considering their thinly sketched characters, however, their efforts are near herculean. Callum is a blank canvas whose default state is a blunt, impenetrable anger that occasionally slips into loopy “I’m losing my mind” melodrama. Fassbender keeps it mostly understated, but even he can’t save the unintentional hilarity when Callum decides to flip his lid and start singing at the top of his lungs in tired shorthand for ‘crazy’.
As a scientist with seemingly good intentions working within a morally murky company, Cottilard has a little more to sink her teeth into. She and the enigmatic Irons have the only interesting relationship in Assassin’s Creed, their subtle push and pull over power a playful change of pace from her one-note interactions with Callum, who bewilderingly accepts his predicament with very little question. It’s a shame, then, that the rationale behind her po-faced quest to “cure violence” through the power of the Apple is hastily explained, and ultimately never given enough weight to feel credible.
Elsewhere in the Foundation’s facility, Michael Kenneth Williams, Callum Turner and a handful of underutilised others are additional test subjects given nothing to play with, bar muted hostility towards Callum, while Charlotte Rampling’s real gravitas as Allan Rikkin’s superior is undermined by the criminally short amount of time she spends on screen.
Character development may not be Assassins Creed’s strong suit, but Kurzel has done a superb job at lifting the giddy, vertical action from the games and applying it credibly to screen. He’s wisely discarded the Animus chair of the games and replaced it with a far more dynamic mechanical arm, allowing Fassbender to perform seriously impressive in-air gymnastics while in his virtual-reality world, mirroring - and blending with - the action we see in 14th-century Spain.
The Spanish Inquisition sequences in Assassin's Creed are its strong suit. Aguilar (also played by Fassbender) has even less to say than Callum, but it doesn’t really matter when he’s leaping between dusty Spanish rooftops, running across ropes, and diving off Church spires. This is breathless, dizzyingly shot stuff that feels tapped directly into the vein of the game series.
Characters here have a lot more fun, too. Though quickly sketched, assassin Maria (Ariane Labed) has a steely resolve and panther-like physicality that makes her an excellent partner in crime for Aguilar, and Javier Gutierrez plays it delightfully sinister as leader of the Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada.
As soon as it’s back to the grim monotony of Callum and co, however, any inkling of life dies. As Assassin’s Creed struggles towards its conclusion - and a nonsensical heel turn from a major character - one can’t help but feel disappointed in a film that got the style of the series so right, yet its heart so wrong.